Reviving the “Cotter Cup” as a Student Poetry Contest with Western Branch Library

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

One of our goals in our ongoing community partnership with the Western Branch of the Louisville Free Public Library, is to create programming and tutoring that not only engages young people in writing and reading, but also connects to and supports the distinctive and important history of this library. The Western Branch library, built in 1908, and the first library in the nation to serve and be fully operated by African Americans has a history of significant contributions to the city’s West End. One of those important contributions was the founding in 1913, by Louisville educator and poet Joseph Cotter, of an annual storytelling contest. The “Cotter Cup” was a ‘storytelling bee,’ intended to encourage children to read and learn through the art of storytelling.

A couple of years ago, Natalie Woods, branch manager of the library, raised the idea of reviving the Cotter Cup as a writing contest. Her vision was of a Cotter Cup in which Louisville K-12 students would produce creative writing and be supported in that work through consultations of University Writing Center staff. The goal of the contest would be to encourage creative writing in the community and to connect K-12 students with writing support and conversations with our university writing consultants. We were excited at the possibility and have been delighted to work with Natalie and her staff on planning and implementing the contest. On our end, Edward English, our Assistant Director for the University Writing Center, organized and facilitated scheduling and supporting the consultations.

It has been a great experience to take part in the inaugural Cotter Cup poetry contest. Although the pandemic necessitated that the contest and consultations take place online this year, we had a great time working with dedicated and imaginative students from across grade levels and across the city. All the participants in the contest received books and writing journals, funded by the UofL English Department Thomas R. Watson Endowment. The winners also received prizes and will have their names engraved on the new “Cotter Cup.” You can read the winning poems here! It was also meaningful, during the pandemic year when so many programs were cancelled and put on hold, to have the chance to create a new program with our community partner and connect to students across the city. We hope that this year’s contest is just the first of what will be a growing and important writing event in our community.

Our consultants also had a great time working with the young writers from across the city. Here is what some of them had to say about the experience:

Ayaat Ismail: I was completely taken aback by these young writers’ creativity and drive during our meetings. It was truly inspiring to watch such young students brainstorm ideas and write poems based on their interests and experiences, whether limericks, free verse, or narratives, as they immersed themselves in poetry and demonstrated their talents and capabilities. It made me appreciate writing in a whole new way, as well as the concept of progression and learning in general.

Caitlin Burns: I really enjoyed being able to tutor elementary students for the Cotter Cup. They were so creative and energetic. I loved hearing their ideas for their poems and working with them, and I learned quite a bit from them as well. It was so lovely to get out of my grad school bubble a bit and have fun playing with words with them. Thanks for all of your and the Writing Center team’s work putting it together!

Alex Way: It was a great experience tutoring students for the Cotter Cup. I worked with an elementary school student who produced an amazing poem and ended up winning first place. Not only was his work exceptional, but he had a deep knowledge of poetry forms and what makes good poetry. Even though I only tutored my student for one session (and he did all the hard work), I can’t help but feel proud of what he has accomplished

Edward English: Working as a consultant for the Cotter Cup was one of the most rewarding activities I’ve done this year.  It was so fun and encouraging to work with such promising young writers and be inspired by their creativity and intelligence.  It was also an incredible honor to be part of contest which continues the exceptional legacy of Joseph Cotter and Western Branch Libraries.

Maddy Decker: I really enjoyed expanding my tutoring horizons from working with college students to also working with high school and elementary writers. I feel like I learned more about myself as a tutor and about what creative writing looks like at different levels. As someone who started writing poetry and short stories in middle school, I’m glad to see so many young writers putting themselves out there, and I hope they continue to explore their talents!

A Week of Community and Hospitality at the Dissertation Writing Retreat

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

This May, for the tenth time, we held our annual Dissertation Writing Retreat. Over the ten years we have held these Retreats, we have worked with doctoral student writers from every college in the University – more than 150 writers during that decade. The Retreat offers writers time and structure to focus on writing their dissertations and daily writing consultations to get feedback on their writing. In addition, each day there are morning and afternoon check-in meetings to set goals for the day and talk about accomplishments and daily small group discussions at lunchtime about writing issues such as structuring a dissertation, time management, and editing and citation issues. Again, this year, the Retreat took place online. (If you want a blast from the past, here is a blog post from that first Retreat in 2012).

The Dissertation Writing Retreat is a busy time – and a lot of work – on our end, but it is also reliably one of the highlights of our year. It’s always exciting to see the writers who attend both make progress on their writing. Yet, just as important, is the ways in which writers develop and refine their writing processes and their approaches to navigating the complexities of audience, genre, and authorial position necessary to write an effective dissertation. At the same time, our writing consultants, who are all doctoral students themselves, always talk about the things they learn during the Retreat about writing and new approaches to teaching writing. In this way, the Dissertation Writing Retreat is a vivid example of the ethic and theory of “hospitality” that we work from in the University Writing Center. Based on the work by Richard and Janis Haswell, hospitality as an approach to education draws from traditional conceptions of hospitality in which a guest and host are both understood to bring value to an encounter and in which reciprocity is a cultural norm. During the Retreat, we always hear how both the writers and consultants learn from each other and, even in just a week, for a supportive community of writers.

Here, in their own words, is a sense of how some of the writers and consultants benefited from the Retreat

First the writers:

Charlotte Asmuth, English. I got so much out of the Dissertation Writing Retreat! I was surprised at how much work I could accomplish in just one week. I came into the week with some writing anxiety and concerns about how to organize particular sections of two chapters. As I worked on my writing and talked with my consultant and other participants in small groups, I learned that I wasn’t alone and I also picked up some strategies for managing my writing time that really helped. In one week, I learned more about my writing process and what will help me write than I’ve learned in several years. For example, outlining and then writing in chunks helps me––as does closing my email, turning my phone off, and writing down concerns as they arise so that I can come back to them later (instead of trying to solve them right away). I’m leaving the week with a great set of strategies to maintain momentum on my dissertation and I’m going to stay in touch with several participants, too.

Doroty Sato, Social Work. The Dissertation Writing Retreat 2021 gave me the resources to continue improving my writing skills. Beyond that, it gave me confidence that I am on the right track. There are so many factors playing a role in this process, so struggling with academic writing is okay. It is not a shame. The Writing Center Team and my colleagues in the group did such an excellent job offering advice and listening to our concerns without judgment. I felt comfortable and included. At the end of the week, my takeaway is that academic writing could be painful sometimes (or most of the time 🙂), but it doesn’t have to be unpleasant.

Eric Shoemaker, Humanities. At the beginning stages of my dissertation writing process, it was important to me to sit down and strategize my own writing processes and procedures. The dissertation writing retreat and my consultant helped me figure out what works for me and what doesn’t and helped me to value all of the work that I do for my project, not just the page count. This was a very valuable and enjoyable experience!

And our consultants:

Olalekan Adepoju, Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing: The 2021 dissertation writing retreat was, among many things, a period of reflection, especially for the writers I had the opportunity to work with. The writers’ reflection during the week-long writing retreat encouraged them, both of whom have been stuck at some point in their writing due to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, to feel more motivated to get back into their dissertation work. Through their reflective efforts as well as conversations during the retreat, these writers could identify what they have done well so far and where/what seems not to be going right. Likewise, as shared by both writers, the retreat has inculcated in them a habit of the mind necessary to create and stay committed to a consistent writing schedule as they continue to write from home

Megen Boyett: This is the third time I’ve worked the Dissertation Writing Retreat. Every year, I find it so rewarding to help a dissertation take shape even just for a week. The deep, sustained focus on the individual writer’s project and process seems to be such an effective way to start the summer writing “semester.” Just like last year, I started the week unsure whether I had useful advice for bio-engineers. Once again, I quickly found that while disciplinary differences are real, the principles for shaping long-term projects and organizing clear writing are consistent.

Nicole Dugan, Assistant Director for the Virtual Writing Center. I completed my first year at the UWC by working as a consultant during the 2018 DWR, and now I’ve come full circle, ending my time at the UWC with this year’s retreat. Working with writers is always so rewarding, and dissertation writers are no different. They bring such passion and excitement to their work, and it’s easy to quickly immerse yourself in the environment of camaraderie and growth built by the leadership and participants of this retreat. The last two years I have been focused on my work with writers in my courses and writing centers, and I haven’t found much inspiration or time for my own writing. After this week, I feel recharged and ready to revisit research projects and creative writing with new momentum and vision. I’m grateful for the community of this retreat, and I am particularly thankful to my two writers whose projects are such intriguing and necessary works that offer new insights and avenues for change in their fields. It was a privilege working with them both, and I can’t wait to see where they take their work moving forward.  

THANKS FOR ALL WHO MADE THIS POSSIBLE

It is important to acknowledge the people who did the hard work of organizing the Retreat – Cassie Book, our Associate Director, organized and oversaw the Retreat this year. Also central to carrying out the Retreat were Amber Yocum, our Administrative Associate, and Assistant Directors Edward English, Olalekan Adepoju, and Nicole Dugan. Our other consultants were Megan Boyett, Aubrie Cox, Cooper Day, and Liz Soule. And thanks to Dean Paul DeMarco, of the Graduate School, for again sponsoring and supporting the Dissertation Writing Retreat.

Keeping Our Commitment to Writers in Deeply Unsettling Times: A Year in Review

Bronwyn T. Williams, Director

I’ve been struggling with how to start this version of my annual, end-of-year blog post. Every attempt to find words to convey how the extraordinary events of the past nine months, from pandemic to protests to political insurrections, have affected us in the University Writing Center quickly crumbles to cliché. At the same time, just a proud listing of accomplishments doesn’t seem appropriate to capture what has happened in the past year. So I think I’ll leave the big themes to someone else and just keep it simple.

I am always proud of the people who work in the University Writing Center and often tell people we’ve got the best Writing Center staff in the business. Yet it would be hard to overstate how special this year’s staff has been. As you may know, we have a completely new staff of MA Graduate Teaching Assistants as consultants each year. Despite the challenges of having to learn how to conduct all their consultations online, under the public health protocols of the pandemic, this group of consultants were consistent in their commitment to helping and supporting UofL writers. Whether they were working, in their masks, from our on-campus space, or from their homes, our consultants continued to listen carefully to writers and to provide excellent advice about writing, and empathetic support about how to navigate, and respond, to writing in such deeply unsettling times.

The less visible, but every bit as essential, part of our work happens behind the scenes with our administrative staff who kept everything organizationally running smoothly given the unprecedented challenge of having both writers, and often consultants, scattered all over the city (and beyond). It is a testament to their creativity, patience – and tenacity – that the organizational aspects of the things ran splendidly, allowing the consultants and writers to focus on issues about writing. This year, as in every year, the work done by Associate Director Dr. Cassandra Book,  Administrative Associate Amber Yocum, and Assistant Directors Edward English, Olalekan Adepoju, and Nicole Dugan was simply indispensable to everything we accomplished.

Though it may be hard to appreciate from the outside, conducting all writing consultations online is a far more challenging teaching context than conducting appointments in person. For our consultants and our administrative staff, having to work completely online, while dealing with taking their own courses online, technological glitches, screen fatigue, physical isolation, students in the Library not wearing masks, and the political turmoil all around us, really has been truly extraordinary. It has also been exhausting. Like everyone else, we’re tired. It’s been hard on all of us and that is important to acknowledge. What I am proud of – and moved by – is that all of the University Writing Center staff, weary as they are, have done their best to remember that the writers bringing their work to us are also weary and stressed and worried about their writing. We have done our best all year to keep the writers’ needs at the forefront and to provide the individual, one-to-one response that is the core of our work in the University Writing Center. It’s been amazing to watch.

Thanks to the Best Writing Center Staff in the Business

Our superb, dedicated, and brilliant consultants make such a significant difference in so many UofL writers’ lives. Our consultants this year have been Michelle Buntain, Lauren Cline, Maddy Decker, Amanda Dolan, Chuck Glover, Ian Hays, Andrew Hutto, Ayaat Ismail, Zoe Litzenberg, Demetrius Minnick-Tucker, Cat Sar, Spenser Secrest, and Emma Turner. Also special thanks go to Writing Center Intern Kendyl Harmeling. Our amazing student workers were Mikaela Smith and Jency Trejo.

We want to give our special thanks and congratulations to Jency Trejo, on her graduation with her BA in English. Jency joined us as a student worker during her first semester at UofL and has been a central and important part of the University Writing Center ever since. We wish her all the best in the future.

We will be open during the summer, starting May 10, from 9-4 every weekday. You can find out more on our website. You can also follow us on our blog and on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Beyond Tutoring – Writing Groups, Retreats, Community Writing

Writing Groups, Workshops, and Dissertation Writing Retreats: Our popular LGBTQ+, Faculty and Graduate Student, and Creative Writing writing groups continued to give UofL writers supportive communities through which they could create and talk about writing. We again held our annual spring Dissertation Writing Retreat  as a fully virtual Retreat. We plan next year to continue all of these groups, so be sure to check our website for information and dates.

Community Writing and the Cotter Cup: We also continued our work with our community partners, the Western Branch of the Louisville Free Public Library and Family Scholar House. Once again we are grateful for the participatory and collaborative partnerships with these organizations. You can find out more about these community writing projects, including how to get involved with them, on our website.

We were particular excited to collaborate with the Western Branch Library on re-establishing the “Cotter Cup” competition. In the early 20th Century Louisville poet and educator Joseph Cotter established a storytelling competition for local youth called the “Cotter Cup.” We worked to support Western Branch Library in re-establishing the Cotter Cup as a poetry contest. As part of the contest, local K-12 students had individual writing consultations with our University Writing Center consultants. The contest entries will be judged by local poets with an awards celebration next month. We hope that this will become an important and vital part of writing in the community going forward.

Writing Center Staff Achievements

The University Writing Center is also an active site of scholarship and creative work. Staff from the Writing Center were engaged in a number of scholarly projects during the past year in rhetoric and composition, literature, and creative writing.

Cassandra Book, Associate Director, gave a presentation on “Passing or Trespassing?: Asynchronous Tutoring, Consultant Practices, and Center Ethos” at the 2021 Southeastern Writing Center Association Conference.

Olalekan Adepoju, Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing, gave a presentation titled,presented a paper on “Discursive Practices in Recurring Asynchronous Consultations:  Implications for Peer Tutoring” at the 2021 Southeastern Writing Center Association Conference. He also published the essay, “Rethinking Tutor-Writer Engagement in Asynchronous Consultations: A Conversational Approach to Recurring Witten Feedback Appointments” in The Dangling Modifier .

Consultants

Michelle Buntain completed her MA Culminating Project, titled,”To Listen is to Witness: Discovering Suffering Through Literary Analysis.”

Maddy Decker was an intern for the Miracle Monocle Literary Magazine in Spring 2021 and served as editor of reviews. She also completed her creative MA Culminating project titled “Register 16.”

Amanda Dolan was an intern for the Miracle Monocle Literacy Magazine and will have a book review published in the upcoming issue.  She also completed her creative MA Culminating project titled “Precipitated.”

Kendyl Harmeling completed her MA Culminating Project titled, “Circumventing Self-Destruction:  A Study on Imposter Syndrome, Affect Dissonance, and the Power of Hospitality in a first-year Graduate Program.” She gave a presentation, “Passing or Trespassing?: Asynchronous Tutoring, Consultant Practices, and Center Ethos” at the 2021 Southeastern Writing Center Association Conference . Kendyl also was a Writing Center Administrative Intern in Fall 2020 and will be joining the UofL Rhetoric and Composition PhD program next year.

Ayaat Ismail was an intern for the Miracle Monocle Literacy Magazine and published a book review with poet Steve Kistulentz in the current issue. She also became managing editor of the Miracle Monocle’s mini anthology called MONSTER.

Demetrius Minnick-Tucker completed his MA Culminating Project, titled, “Sho Baraka’s The Narrative: Hip Hop and the Social Role of the Church.” He will also be joining the Georgia State University Literature PhD program in fall 2021.

Cat Sar completed her creative MA Culminating Project titled, “Ghosted.”

To Senior Year: My Last Words

Demetrius Minnick-Tucker, Writing Consultant

A day most looked for —and for some —a day most prolonged: graduation is an inevitable reality of one’s academic career. And with last assignments and (more sadly) last goodbyes rushing after you as the school year comes to a close, it’s easy to forget the wonder of one’s college experience. So, in an attempt to slow you down and capture your entire academic career before it comes to a screeching end, if you would, join me for a moment of nostalgia. An ode to the graduates:

Attend to the letter forged from this pen,

The days of May-time, gone with the wind…

Seasons come, seasons go,

Experience taught us how to know:

Flower’s blossom, spring-time is here!

Leaves begin to fade, 

Met by a chilling crusade,

It’s clear, winter-time is near.

A generation comes, a generation goes,

That’s how school years often go:

The chapters begun, excited with a glow,

The chapter continues, long studying, only to expect the unknown;

The chapter slows to a close,

The chapter ends on a solemn note; alone.

So the story goes,

Freshman to Senior year. 

Then, young and uncertain, 

Now, matured and determined.

Senior year is here, and I can say I have known

The highs and the lows, 

And the paradox, that senior year

Is as the close of a remarkably happy career:

You’ve heard the applauds,

The criticisms and the assuring nods,

You’ve known what it is to hurt,

Yet, wake up tomorrow for work.

Oh Senior Year! 

What have you meant to me?

You have been like a sweet flower,

Fragrant, and beautiful to behold;

However, Time awoke: beckoning your bower

To join its withering cold.

On Words and Images

Amanda Dolan, Writing Consultant

When re-curating the bookcase visible to my webcam, I initially hid all comics and graphic narratives behind horizontal stacks of traditional novels. Considering how generally beautiful the spines of graphic novels are, I don’t think this layering was a result of an aesthetic instinct. I was almost definitely conceding to the idea that stories with images are fluffy. And though I enjoy similarly described pets appearing in other Zoom backgrounds, I didn’t feel totally comfortable featuring reads perceived that way in my own. 

Now, nearly a year later, these books can be seen bowing a middle shelf, and I can be seen, metaphorically, going to bat for them this baseball season. I have the writing center to thank for this. Both the UWC staff and writers have taught me the extent to which language transcends words, and the value of, I guess, communicative syncretism. Writers or colleagues and I will talk about things like the weather or even planetary energies not out of awkwardness or eccentricity but because such topics are strangely good starting points for thinking and communicating. Basically, it’s very natural for people to reach to make concepts work together so they can communicate a little more clearly (think emojis and storytelling). And writing center pedagogy, as a technique focused on communication, embraces that type of syncretism by defining and upholding the center as an inherently social space where writers and consultants bring their own unique knowledge and life experiences. 

Embracing this pedagogy alongside the fact that a lot of sighted people experience the world by contextualizing words and images together has me not only defending comics as literature, but also advocating for drawing as a natural extension of the writing process. It’s common, accessible, and effective to make meaning and record our worlds through visuals, and I personally started drawing pictures in my essay and class notes to combat lockdown-created memory issues. Whenever my brain has a flicker of an idea but is reluctant to fully enter analysis mode, I either make a quick semiotic square or caption a small drawing to revisit when I have the patience and mental capacity to puzzle out my thoughts. If you are interested in trying to use image as an avenue for developing scholarly written communication, consider starting with a semiotic square or a map —or even try drawing items that stand out from a text you need to analyze. I’ve also found that quickly drawing items or settings can be beneficial for immersing myself in a piece of creative writing. This method shouldn’t become fraught or have anything to do with how well you think you can or cannot draw —it is just another way to engage with complex ideas before tackling them through words. 

Letters to My Soulmate

Maddy Decker, Writing Consultant

Call me someone who’s watched Aquamarine 17 times too many, but I believe in soulmates. I believe that each person has multiple soulmates and that not every soulmate is meant to be a romantic match: some are just friends that you connect with on another level. 

In 2018, sick of my anxiety controlling me, I threw myself on a plane to Ireland to study abroad for the summer. I met one of my soulmates, Becky, in our hostel the day before we started our program. Despite how shy I usually am, we were discussing everything from grief to spirituality to mutually enjoyed YouTube videos within a day of knowing each other. She bunked above me in the room we shared with the other girls, and we spent nearly every moment of the next 6 weeks together laughing and continuing our deep discussions. We returned to the program the next summer to share another 4 weeks, but the pandemic prevented us from meeting up in person again. The problem: Becky lives in Minnesota, a 10-hour drive away from Louisville. We vowed to keep in touch but quickly realized that neither of us particularly enjoy holding our conversations over text or SnapChat messages.

            I don’t remember who sent the first letter or if it was a mutual decision we made; regardless, writing to each other has helped us maintain our friendship and communication at a pace and level that we both seem comfortable with. When I receive a letter from Minnesota, I know I’m in for a treat. Our letters usually end up being 5-7 handwritten pages, depending on how we feel when we write them, and we talk about whatever comes to mind. Sometimes our letters are funny, and sometimes they’re more serious in tone (they’re usually a combination of both). I tell Becky how school is going, what shows I’ve been bingeing, and that I’m not entirely sure what my future plans are after the next few years. She tells me about her family, boyfriend, and work, and she shares that she’s facing similar uncertainties. We serve as each other’s friends and confidantes through our letters.

            The pace of our exchanges contributes to the success of our letter writing, I believe. Due to the unfortunate truth that being an adult means not spending every second with or talking to your best friends, we each keep fairly busy. We write a few times a year, always making sure to send a letter near the winter holidays, sometimes with a small gift attached. Somehow, we do manage to maintain conversations even with the large gaps between our letters. We ask each other questions and answer them, knowing that each letter will continue to layer and build with our past queries and our present news. It’s like catching up over a long lunch, or even a weekend trip, depending on how long it takes me to read and respond to her, and I treasure our letters. 

            I’ve seen letter writing pop up as a fun hobby to try, and I cannot recommend it enough. Becky and I continue to write to each other, and I’ve recently started sending shorter letters to some of my other friends, including a friend I usually see at least once a month. If you don’t have the kind of relationship that enables a regular exchange, you might consider looking online to find a pen pal or writing to someone you know who isn’t expecting mail (or, at least, ‘fun’ mail). 

It’s always exciting to receive a letter, and it can be so enjoyable to write one. Try choosing some decorative stationary that calls out to you (although there’s nothing wrong with notebook paper)! Use a pen in a color you like, and cover your letter in stickers, stamps, tape, sketches, and whatever else makes you happy. Tell someone a secret, tell them something funny, or just tell them about your day (and if you’d like some more tips or inspiration, you should scroll back to an earlier post from Andrew Hutto: “You Should Send a Holiday Card This Year – and Here’s How!”). You might not be writing to your soulmate, but you could find that you enjoy picking up this new hobby!    

The Value of Writing Every Day

Andrew Hutto, Writing Consultant

“Writing every day is a way of keeping the engine running, and then something good may come out of it.” – T. S. Eliot

Early on in my writing practice, I would consistently seek out advice from more seasoned voices on how to improve. This is fairly common for newer writers; we get hooked on a great idea, scribble out a few lines, and then sit back to marvel at our own greatness. Then the realization starts to sink in: after looking the piece over a few times, the rotten feeling of inadequacy starts to crest. If the bug for writing isn’t crushed by these initial falters, seeking out improvement is the next logical step. This goes for most things, not just writing. If you enjoy playing pickup basketball, you start watching videos on proper shooting form, you start consulting the fellow player at your gym, and so on. With most skill-based activities, the desire to improve accompanies. You want to reexperience the rush of finishing a good poem or hitting a corner three. Ultimately, the goal for most is to develop their talents to feel comfortable and consistent in achieving these goals within their discipline.

The writers I consulted for my own improvement gave wonderful advice on several topics, but the most reliant answer I received was “write every day.”   Several blog posts across the internet have discussed the practice of writing daily; I’ve heard this advice from teachers and mentors, and even read peer-reviewed studies demonstrating its value. The recommendation seems endless, especially from the pantheon of celebrated writers we’ve come to admire. 

Now armed with this advice, I started out headstrong, trying to outwork bad habits and stumble upon something meaningful. Now, as you might imagine, this can’t last long and will only escalate the initial self-doubt and impatience that led the initial advice to be sought out. I was stumped. “Why can’t I be like them”, “when will I start writing good pieces” “is there a shortcut to circumvent all this nonsense”? 

Naturally, my writing practice started to atrophy, and the initial motivation was replaced by resentment. The joy of writing started to bitter, and I started to convince myself that a more sporadic practice would ultimately produce the best results. “Only strike while the iron is hot” became my mentality, and this seemed to work for a brief period of time, but eventually, the plateau set in, and the improvement saw little to no return. I pressed on in this haphazard fashion for some time until I resolved to try the daily writing practice again. Obviously, being in school within an English department you are almost always writing, but the kind I wanted to generate was of a different function; it was for me and directed by me, serving the purposes I’d given it. 

In my second attempt at daily writing, I started to identify the reason for my shortcomings. It all came down to value. My analogy was all wrong. Writing wasn’t like basketball or a muscle to be strained and regrown; writing was much more about feeling the words make connections, and ultimately, defamiliarizing yourself so that realization might blossom. I was treating my daily writing practice like a kind of rat race in which speed, brute force, and sheer will produce the most satisfactory results. Authentic, touching, and generative writing doesn’t operate within these parameters; instead, fruitful writing practices arise from slow, meditative, and intentional habits. The connection between mindfulness and writing daily started to crystalize, and I found that when I asked myself, reflexively, “how do feel about writing today?” “Why do you want to write today? Surely no one else is holding you to?” These types of mental check-ins held my formed practice in place and allowed me the comfort and flexibility to avoid gaging “improvement” on a critical scale, and rather accessing how I felt about the writing. It was important to not judge these thoughts or try to correct them at the moment. Rather, it seems to be more helpful to react gently to yourself. If on that particular day, you don’t know why you are writing, or are unsure of its quality, simply noting this feeling will avoid the pitfalls of crippling self-doubt or, adversely, self-importance.

When it comes to sustaining a daily writing practice, I believe finding the value of your sessions to be the key factor in staying healthy and motivated. Observing your modulating disposition without seizing on the corrective measure furthers this daily routine and makes the whole thing an exercise filled with patience, grace, and generosity. Now, your daily writing practice doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s and can truly be of any substance. If you start keeping a dream journal, or you have a penchant for sketching dialogue, or perhaps you find solace in synthesizing research: all these ventures can fall into daily practice. Depending on your comfort level, you can switch genres each day or begin a months-long project. For those who are just curious about starting a daily writing habit, I would encourage keeping a gratitude journal in which you jot down a sentence or two about what you’ve been thankful for throughout the day. The goal for this exercise is not only to check-in and keep perspective, but also to limit the scope so that you might work on composing the most attuned sentence to capture your thankfulness. Keep it up for a few months and look back to see not only all the many things you’ve appreciated, but also the gradually improved quality of your writing. 

Writer’s Block in the Time of Covid

Spenser Secrest, Writing Consultant

            One feeling that I deal with frequently during the ongoing pandemic is one of stasis.  While there is certainly some optimism during this time, as COVID-19 vaccines continue to be distributed, there is still, for me, an overwhelming feeling of being stuck in one place, despite the fact that I am taking graduate courses and progressing through UofL’s English M.A. program.  To be clear, I understand that being on lockdown and the precautions that are in place are for everyone’s good, including my own, but this does not mean that these preventive measures make life easy.  For me, it feels as though life has been perpetually on hold.  On the worst days, this static feeling can make it hard to do anything, whether it be schoolwork or something to relax, even something as simple as streaming something online.  Needless to say, this feeling of stasis has led to writer’s block, both for my academic writing assignments, as well as for my own creative writing.  As counterintuitive as it may seem, having little to do because of the pandemic has actually led to me having a reluctance to start academic assignments and any creative projects. 

            When people discuss writing, of any kind, you often hear phrases about only writing “when inspired.”  For me, this has never been my own approach to writing.  I’ve often found that actually starting the writing process leads to inspiration.  However, with the feeling of stasis, it is easy to want to do nothing, rather than intellectually exert oneself by writing, whether that writing is for an academic assignment or for leisure.  I’ve even found getting motivated to brainstorm ideas for a paper to be difficult, despite the fact that this phase of the writing process does not involve any actual writing. 

            I often reflect on, or else in some way, incorporate past experiences in my own creative writing.  However, the pandemic has led, to me, to there being almost nothing that I would want to write about or include in my writing.  I’ve found that I write best when I have reflected on something after it has happened, as events are often too difficult to process when they are actually happening.  For me, it makes more sense to think about and analyze something thoroughly before writing before writing about it, as opposed to writing about something with your gut reaction immediately after something has happened.  However, as the pandemic is still ongoing, any insight that can be found by reflecting on it is limited. 

            In terms of my writing for classes, this is something that will, obviously, have to get done, eventually. However, due to the pandemic, I’ve found myself procrastinating more than usual and not enjoying the writing process nearly as much as I had in the past. While every semester brings papers that are not enjoyable to write and that may make one more susceptible to procrastination, it seems as if every paper, even minor papers that are not graded as rigorously, take as long to begin writing as the more difficult and less enjoyable papers. I’m inclined to attribute this to the fact that the pandemic has led to there being less sense of accomplishment after writing something. For example, whether I finish writing one of the most difficult papers of the semester or the last minor assignment for the week, there will be little that I can do in my personal life afterwards, due to the pandemic limiting all of our usual activities. 

Although the precautions that are in place, due to the pandemic, are for everyone’s health, they have not contributed to productivity, at least for me. While both academic and creative writing can be difficult to begin, it is worth noting that writing can be easy once the process has been started.  While it can especially difficult to get motivated to brainstorm ideas for a paper, as there is no visible product after doing so.  However, this part of process should not be discounted, as it may lead to enthusiasm for the writing project. Finally, if the outbreak of COVID-19 has led to other people experiencing writer’s block, perhaps there will be a plethora of written material produced once the pandemic ends, as going back to normal and the optimism that will come may inspire people to write. 

How We Talk to Write: Reflecting on the Speaking/Writing Connection

Nicole Dugan, Assistant Director

For the last several years, I’ve spent most of my days talking about writing. I’m often speaking with writers in writing center sessions or with students in my first-year composition classes, but sometimes I’m talking to myself. While working on this post, I spent the first hour or so talking through my ideas as I mapped them on paper and reading aloud sentences as I drafted them. Without all of this speaking, the writing process often feels like slogging through wet cement for me. Lately, I’ve been fixated on this connection between the written and verbal. Writing and speaking are irrevocably intertwined for me and for all of us. 

Writing cannot happen without speaking. Language is expressed through the modes of speaking and writing, and these modes “are mutually informing” (Sperling 53). This connection isn’t always underscored in the teaching of writing, and often we develop resistance towards writing because we see these two modes as disconnected from one another. Most of us do not speak in perfect Standard American English, and our dialects reflect our rich, diverse cultures and backgrounds, not the uniform language we read in scholarship. As we enter academia and professional spheres, we are often told we cannot write like we speak. This repeated maxim–which tells us we must learn to write in a way that is not of ourselves–introduces anxieties and tensions into the writing process, leaving writers of all backgrounds feeling conflicted and overwhelmed. Our languages are so closely tied to our identities that writing can sometimes feel like a challenge to our self-expressions, especially in an academic setting. 

I often turn to speaking when writing is challenging. Sometimes it’s because of a deadline or assignment or maybe writer’s block, but regardless of cause, talking helps me gain insight and inspiration. I often see writers experience this, too, as we work together in sessions. While talking about writing is a cornerstone in the writing center’s mission and work, we don’t always make this connection explicit in sessions or in our own writing processes. Traditional face-to-face sessions and live video chats rely on the verbal in order to develop the written. (Even asynchronous written feedback takes on a conversational tone.) Writers are encouraged to talk through the assignment, their progress, their concerns, and how they feel about the writing. Even though the goal is to improve writing skills and the text at hand, we leave the page behind to just talk first. We read drafts aloud during sessions to create a space of aural collaboration in discussion and revision. All of this talking helps to build, clarify, and revise ideas and communication. Deemphasizing the physical text allows us to bring attention to speaking’s role in the writing process. This invites writers to explore and discuss their writing verbally without the anxieties and tensions of writing “correctly” or even accurately. 

When we embrace the connection of writing and speaking, we begin to feel more liberated in our writing and the writing process. If we set aside the (un)spoken conventions and expectations we’ve picked up over years of writing instruction, we may find that inspiration, ideas, and understanding are not as lacking as we once believed. One way I do this in my own process is by talking out loud about my writing projects and recording these one-way conversations. There is no blank document and blinking cursor taunting me, and most importantly, this method helps me forget about the rules. I’m not slowed down by an inner critic telling me I can’t start sentences with conjunctions, cringing at misspellings or missing words, or asking me if what I’m talking about accomplishes the goal. Instead, I’m able to ramble and explore to my heart’s content. Currently, there are at least ten voice recordings on my phone pertaining to various undrafted and unfinished writing projects from the last several months. There are essay topics, outlines of research projects, and snapshots of creative writing sparked while driving home. I can listen to myself speak in colloquialisms, contractions, and fragments. Some of them are great, and some of them aren’t so great, just like with my written outlines and drafts. These recordings and their content sound like me though, unfiltered by the constraints of academic prose and audiences. Academic writing can feel defamiliarizing, as it often asks us to take on a different voice for the sake of a text and its message. Listening and talking to ourselves and others about writing helps to center our voices and can remind us that our words and ideas are always ours, no matter the context or guidelines. 

Sperling, Melanie. “Revisiting the Writing-Speaking Connection: Challenges for Research on Writing and Writing Instruction.” Review of Educational Research, vol. 66, no. 1, 1996, pp. 53-86. 

What We Can Learn from Dogs: Resource Guarding and the Writing Center

Emma Turner, Writing Consultant

For the past six months, I have been raising a puppy—my “quarantine puppy,” if you will. During this same time period, I have been doing my best to read materials on how to train said puppy. Teaching and growing with my dog has been a wonderful, terrible, stressful, informative, and rewarding experience, and, surprisingly/weirdly, I have found that some of the strategies I have learned in helping her personality develop translate to understanding processes of writers who visit the Writing Center (myself included, if not emphasized). 

One of the behaviors that can develop as a dog grows older, and that I have done my best to curb with my doggo, is resource guarding. Resource guarding is when a dog becomes particularly aggressive and protective around an object that they see as holding value. That object could be food, a toy, a sock they stole from their owner’s roommate (not that my dog has EVER done that), or a place like the dog’s bed. The dog sees value within whatever object it chooses to guard. It believes that it owns that item and will do anything to protect it even if this means hurting other animals or its human, but in order to train a dog out of such behavior, one must learn to engage in a practice of patience, understanding, and trading. To overcome such behavior is an act of collaboration between the dog and its owner. It is a give and take of allowing oneself to be vulnerable and allowing another to be near or a part of something of value. 

Working with writers is a similar process when thinking about the development of the writing consultation. In a sense, writers resource guard their work. As a writer, even if we dislike what we have written, at some level, we are proud of it. I say we because I am a writer too, and to pretend that I would not defend, protect my own work (even the worst of it) would be hypocritical. To accomplish the feat of generating a product for an assignment is impressive on its own no matter the final quality. Because we are proud of what we have written, we want to protect it. Even if the feedback we are receiving about the draft is helpful and positive, it is normal to feel conflicted about the revision of a creation that we are already content with. But, as a puppy learns as it overcomes the habit of resource guarding, sometimes sharing the things we value most can yield the biggest reward.

Collaboration in a writing consultation is key. Although the responsibilities of the consultant and the writer may differ within a session, three manners in which a mutual performance is integral are patience, understanding, and generative discussion. Through a live chat or written feedback session, these behaviors primarily take place through discussion of the draft and the writing process as a whole. Being patient with each other—the writer with the consultant and the consultant with the writer, making an honest effort to understand the point of view and the opinion the other offers on the content and form of the paper, and engaging in a conversation that aims to create a friendly, intellectual environment that fosters further development and exploration of the writer’s project are fundamental to creating a space where writers do not feel the need to actively guard their work. Instead, a collaborative effort can yield a product unshackled by the crushing weight of self-conscious and defensive writing. Collaboration and trust can set our words free.